Rinko Kikuchi: 'Girls who are full of sadness look attractive to me'

Rinko Kikuchi: 'Girls who are full of sadness look attractive to me'

Rinko-san explains her latest emotionally challenging role in the film adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s popular novel "Norwegian Wood"
rinko kikuchi, haruki murakami, norwegian wood
Rinko Kikuchi stars alongside Kenichi Matsuyama in "Norwegian Wood."

The cast of the long-awaited film adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s massively popular novel "Norwegian Wood" ("Noruwei no Mori" in Japanese) glide easily on to the stage at Waseda Universtity in Tokyo, where much of the film was shot.

Comprised of stars like Kenichi Matsuyama, Rinko Kikuchi, Kengo Kora, Reika Kirishima and supermodel Kiko Mizuhara (nee Audrey Daniel), they banter warmly and clearly are very fond of each other.

But one point jumps out. As is Japanese custom they address each other by their surnames, as “Matsuyama-san” and “Mizuhara-san,” except for one actor, who is simply “Rinko-san.”

This use of her first name is not a lack of respect, quite that opposite. It shows that Kikuchi, the only living Japanese actress to be nominated for an Academy Award, is in a different category.

At 29 years of age Rinko Kikuchi is a Japanese icon.

rinko kikuchi, haruki murakami, norwegian woodRinko Kikuchi remains relaxed and humble despite her success.

Oscar recognition 

She skyrocketed to international fame when she starred as deaf-mute teenager Chieko in Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s Babel (2006). The film won awards around the world, including Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival, and earned Kikuchi her Oscar nomination.

“I was really lucky to get that,” says a typically humble Kikuchi. “That made me known internationally, and it made it possible for me to be seen by people who wouldn’t have been able to see me.”

"Norwegian Wood" is a Japanese film, but directed by Vietnamese-French auteur Tran Anh Hung ("The Scent of Green Papaya"). Initially Tran was uninterested in Kikuchi for the lead role of Naoko, but Kikuchi sent him a video portraying a scene from the book. 

“The director saw 'Babel,' and said I was not the best choice for this role. But they let me do the audition anyway, so I was impressed.” Apparently so was Tran, who cast Kikuchi in the pivotal role.

rinko kikuchi, haruki murakami, norwegian woodThe cast of "Norwegian Wood" are all relaxed with one another.

A nuanced performance

Set in the late 1960s, the story of "Norwegian Wood" starts with childhood sweethearts Kizuki (Kora) and Naoko (Kikuchi), enjoying high school with best friend Watanabe (Matsuyama). But Kizuki suddenly commits suicide, leaving Naoko distressed and Watanabe hurrying to college in Tokyo. 

The two meet there by chance, and bonded by their shared loss, fall in love. Naoko, however, is too emotionally damaged and must flee to a treatment center.

Kikuchi nails the difficult role with a superbly nuanced performance. On the surface the part seems similar to Chieko but “I think they’re quite different,” says Kikuchi.

“Chieko is deaf … so she is very tough, she’s had to struggle through life. But the girl in the 'Norwegian Wood' was living with death. While Chieko represents life, Naoko represents death, so they are far apart,” says Kikuchi. 

rinko kikuchi, haruki murakami, norwegian woodRinko Kikuchi was joined by Kiko Mizuhara, director Tran Anh hung and producer Shinji Ogawa at a press conference at the Foreign Correspondent's Club of Japan.

Teenage dream

Kikuchi had read Murakami’s popular 1987 novel when she was 18, the same age as protagonist Naoko, and it had a big affect on her.

Yet, Kikuchi, who was already a professional actress at that age, is thankful she got to do the role as an adult.

“I think it would have been very difficult for me to play this role when I was 18. I wouldn’t say I couldn’t, but hard,” she notes. 

“Because when you’re in your teens, your imagination is quite limited. In a way, it is big and flexible, but at the same time, it’s prejudiced. As you get older and live in a bigger room, you become able to understand more things.

"You can choose whether you want to go deep or just touch on the surface. So in that sense, I was very lucky to get the chance to play Naoko when I’d gotten older,” says Kikuchi.

The reaction to the film has been tremendous. It premiered at the prestigious Venice Film Festival this year and received an enthusiastic standing ovation. 

While much of the credit can be given to stellar performances by Kikuchi and Kenichi Matsuyama, there is no doubt Tran’s sensitivity and stunning visual sense inform the entire work. 

rinko kikuchi, haruki murakami, norwegian woodRinko glows in white at the film press conference in Tokyo.Indeed, Kikuchi is quick to praise the director who wrote the script in French originally and had it translated to Japanese. “He’s a person who can give us very technical direction, like face that way, or start crying three seconds or three minutes later than last time,” observes Kikuchi.

“But he’s also poetic. He can talk about things in a very delicate and sensitive way, and he has a dynamic side, and he can talk about huge things. I think not many people have these two sides, thus he’s a very talented director." 

Kikuchi’s career has encompassed many roles of distressed characters, but the actress affirms how happy she is in real life. “I wouldn’t be able to express sorrow in my acting if I had sorrow in my private life. I can do it because that’s opposite to what I actually have. That’s why I want to do it and I need to do it. That’s why these girls who are full of sadness look attractive to me.”

The actress is clearly talented at sculpting roles with deep emotional resonance, and it has earned her a huge respect in Japan and a promising future.

Norwegian Wood opens nationwide in Japan on December 11.


Rob Schwartz is a Tokyo-based journalist and the Japan correspondent for Billboard magazine.
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